The recent release of the guidance on developer contributions for school places marks a sea change in Government policy on delivering new and expanded schools. This presents a range of risks for developers from a viability perspective, but also opportunities to identify new sites which can deliver both education and residential development.
In recent weeks, both the DfE (Securing Developer Contributions for Education) and CLG (revisions to Planning Practice Guidance) have published guidance on collecting developer contributions to fund new school places. This is part of a significant shift of emphasis away from Central Government funding the bulk of new school places towards a situation whereby developers will be expected to deliver them, where it is directly arising from new housing growth.
Up until now, the Free School Programme has been heavily funding the delivery of new schools, with 442 schools open and a further 262 in the process of opening since 2010. The programme has evolved from one of seeking to expand parental choice to one that has sought to address a dramatic and significant change in demographics. The rapid spike in birth rates in recent years, particularly in London and the South East, has sparked an urgent need to deliver more primary and secondary school places. The Free School Programme has broadly responded to that and while a number of schools are still seeking sites, the majority of this need has now been met.
The Free School Programme therefore appears to be decelerating and in the future it is expected to be smaller and focused on assisting with Government objectives of improving social mobility. This does not mean that England does not need more schools; housing targets in new Local Plans will create a need for new schools – but as this need is perpetual Central Government will increasingly expect developers to pay for it.
For those developers with draft allocations in emerging Local Plans there will be an emerging risk that the cost of a new school will be on top of, and not instead of, other financial contributions. Equally, local authorities delivering growth in lower housing value areas may face some difficult decisions over priorities. NPPF2 has upped the viability stakes for Local Planning Authorities and developers. Local Authorities with sensible and prudently formed policies, based on an implementable reality, will be supported in their efforts to secure planning obligations and affordable housing contributions, including those for education. The Local Planning Authorities that fail to implement realistic policies or which fail to meet the test of delivering much needed development, will find that NPPF2 is more supportive of developers. As the Department for Education starts setting national standards for the costs of education, Local Planning Authorities will have an opportunity to adjust their planning obligation policies for education contributions.
This policy change will also have wider ranging implications for both local authorities and developers when identifying new sites. Local authorities will need to be robust when identifying where schools will be located and the level of growth they will need to meet. The feasibility of new schools will require proper testing at Local Plan stage as Central Government will no longer provide a fallback position to deliver schools on a windfall basis.
For developers seeking new opportunities, there is potential to offer high quality education development as part of their offer to local authorities. Greenfield sites in particular can provide larger school grounds with a greater range of recreational facilities on site (perhaps which aren’t available at other schools in the area) which may make them more appealing to local authorities when deciding which sites to allocate in their Local Plan.
It also seems likely that local authorities may increasingly look at co-locating residential development above schools, particularly in areas of land restraint. There have been a number of recent examples of this working successfully on brownfield sites. While this won’t be right for every school, it has the benefit of making efficient use of land and in some cases will regenerate existing school sites which are in need of refurbishment or expansion through the provision of enabling development.
Finally, schools have immense potential to help with the re-planning and re-imagining of town centres. Schools often have great capacity to offer a whole host of community facilities (gyms, sporting clubs, adult training facilities). Schools can benefit from incoming development (not just residential-led) and new development can support the provision of much needed educational facilities. The use of existing and new school facilities and the way they are planned can also play a key role in achieving healthy planning objectives and many of the objectives of the NPPF.
This change to the school funding process is likely to have very significant implications, which stakeholders will need to be mindful of. Iceni, however, is of the view that there remains significant opportunities for all parties to deliver innovative and high quality schools to meet this emerging need.
Iceni will be looking to hold a breakfast seminar in the near future on school delivery. If you are interested in receiving details of this event, please register with events@Iceniprojects.com